Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - May 2015

* Lilacs out of the Dead Land *

Beer duty cuts have driven a striking recovery in the pub trade, but it’s by no means universal

BY THE TIME you read this, there’s a distinct chance George Osborne will no longer be Chancellor of the Exchequer. But, in his budget in March, he cut beer duty for the third time in a row, something unparalleled in history. Some have pooh-poohed this, saying that a penny a pint duty cut is neither here nor there, and most pub operators haven’t applied it anyway. But in reality the comparison is not with a duty freeze, but with the continued application of the beer duty escalator, which would have resulted in a pint in the pub being 30 or 40p dearer by now.

There can be little doubt that three years of small beer duty cuts, combined with the economic recovery, have delivered a much-needed shot in the arm to the pub trade. In 2014, beer sales in pubs fell by just 0.8%, the lowest figure in fifteen years. Yes, it’s still a small decline, but it’s one that many other businesses such as print newspapers would die for. A report by the Centre for Economic and Business Research has claimed that the beer duty reductions have already saved over 1,000 pubs from closure.

A couple of years ago, all was doom and gloom, with pubs closing left, right and centre, and Robinsons’ pub cull shutting many much-loved but no longer viable locals. But the tide seems to have turned. Entirely new bars have sprung up such as the Spinning Top and Heaton Hops, the long-closed Bambooza on Stockport Market Place has returned to life as Live!, and our local family brewers have been spending large sums on revamping pubs such as the Baker’s Vaults, Platform 5 and the Griffin in Heald Green. There’s certainly a new sense of confidence in the air.

However, we shouldn’t forget that this upsurge is largely confined to town and city centres and prosperous suburbs. The wider social trends that have contributed to the decline have not gone away, and it’s still reckoned that, across the country, thirty pubs are closing every week.

* Bring Back Plates! *

Pubs are serving food on anything but plates, no matter how ludicrous

GO IN ANY pub or restaurant nowadays that has the slightest aspiration to be fashionable, and the odds are that you will have your meal served, not on a plate, but on a roofing slate, a chopping board, a baking tray or even just a plank of wood. Your chips may be stacked on their end in a mug, salad under an upturned wine glass and vegetables in a flowerpot. Some of the worst examples highlighted on the Twitter account @WeWantPlates include bread in slippers, chips in a miniature shopping trolley, steak on a meat cleaver and mushy peas in a latté glass.

Not too long ago, people were complaining about square plates replacing round ones, but this is taking things to a whole new level. There are obvious practical objections, in that an entirely flat surface does nothing to stop food sliding or dripping off the edge, and you have to wonder how thoroughly chunks of wood are washed, especially those with cracks in them. Some types of containers may make it physically difficult to actually eat the food from them.

But ultimately this is just a rather pathetic attempt to come across as funky, artisanal and cutting-edge. Anything, no matter how absurd, is better than a boring old round plate. We all know that very often the food’s just popped out of a microwave and they’re not actually slaughtering pigs round the back. However, Wetherspoons are bucking the trend – not so long ago they replaced plain square plates with very retro-looking round ones with blue and white patterns. It might be a good idea for more pubs to follow suit and stop opening themselves up to ridicule.

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